Confused buildings

I. The building that forgot what street it’s on

As you walk down Jerusalem’s Yanovsky Street toward Derech Hevron (Hebron Road), a building rises up on your left.

At first glance it’s a tasteful if somewhat aloof structure: Jerusalem stone and reflective corporate glass. You might guess that the building contains offices. Your eye seeks out the entrance; then you realize that there is no entrance, at least not one that faces the street, where you’d expect an entrance to be.

As you move on, a stately facade reveals itself, and you understand that what you saw before was just one “side” of the building. You think you’ve now identified the building’s “front,” which for some reason is oriented away from the street. Your earlier life experience of buildings has conditioned you (or your innate psychology has primed you) to expect a classical colonnade to be situated at the front of a building. You even expect this when the classical colonnade has a stark crystalline beak protruding from its middle.

Yet the gate is locked, and you see no one entering or exiting, or even milling about the large plaza.

A little farther and you finally realize where the building’s main entrance is:

It’s only when you reach Derech Hevron and look back that you can get an, as it were, face-to-face view of the “front” of the building — though even then the stately facade is partly blocked by a large structure that stands between it and Derech Hevron. Imagine, say, the White House or the Capitol Building facades obscured by other edifices.

What’s the purpose of this building? Who uses it?

Although the colonnade might make you think of presidential handshakes, the fact is that the building, though originally planned for offices, was ultimately intended to serve as a residence for senior citizens.

Though the reality is a little more complex.

See those elderly women who look like they’re sneaking in by a back door, for some possibly questionable purpose?

What they’re entering via this low-profile opening is the building’s main activity floor, which is under the colonnade level. There’s a library in there with tables set up for bridge, a billiard room, a synagogue, an exercise room, a computer room, an arts and crafts room, a swimming pool, and a dining hall. There’s a therapy room and a clinic, and a grand, curving staircase leading up to the residential floors.

The building was completed a number of years ago, but its occupancy rate apparently leaves something to be desired. There are constant campaigns to attract residents, which give an impression of desperation (“We have lectures! It’s interesting here!”).

Yet residential occupancy isn’t the only parameter by which the building’s utility might be judged: the swimming pool is open to non-residents, and the synagogue (wedged between the billiard room and the exercise room) has become the regular Shabbat prayer venue for many young families who live nearby but have no shul of their own.

I don’t take photographs on Shabbat; if I did you could see those beautiful young families entering the compound via the little pedestrian door tacked onto the driveway gate as an afterthought. You could see them, parents and children, shuffling past the security booth, entering the inconspicuous activity floor, filing past the billiard room, crowding into the teeny-tiny synagogue that was designed to hold a limited number of elderly residents.

II. Icon in search of starchitect

When the British enacted their famous Mandate-era Jerusalem stone ordinance, dictating that all new buildings erected in the city be covered in the signature pale limestone, they probably didn’t imagine that the requirement would someday apply to a sports arena.

If ever an exemption from the Jerusalem stone ordinance might have been justified, the Arena was it.

Overall, the ordinance is a good thing. The uniformity it generates is not irksome — at least not in those parts of town that are diverse and intensive in use. You can understand why it is right for Jerusalem’s supermarkets and health clinics, its kindergartens and falafel joints, to be faced with the classic material, which lends dignity and reminds us, at all times, where we are. The stone both responds to and reinforces the city’s basic character, across the various uses and populations that inhabit it.

But the mega-structure pictured above, born of a desire to transform the world capital of monotheism into the Israeli capital of sport, is a thing apart — and its design should have reflected that.

There are occasions when bling is called for. If you’re going to impose a massive facility that generates vast amounts of noise and motorized traffic on the hapless residents of an adjacent low-income neighborhood — contributing to the border vacuum that strangles the neighborhood to the north, south and west — you might as well give those residents a proper icon to look at.

This is where confusion comes into play. There is nothing modest about the Jerusalem Payis Arena. Not its size, not its cost (double the original budget), not the way in which its construction was fast-tracked by the Municipality, not the way it turns the nearby residential neighborhoods and even the roadways that serve it into giant parking lots on game nights.

Yet the decision to face the Arena in Jerusalem stone was apparently rooted in “modesty.” Hey, we can’t build an arena that doesn’t fit in! We don’t want an arena that calls attention to itself!

No, we want a sedate, self-effacing arena of Jerusalem stone and reflective corporate glass.

It’s true that the Jerusalem Payis Arena, like other stadiums, looks better at night, when it’s lit up. It takes on a bit of glamour then. But you can’t design a megaproject to look iconic only at night, and oppressively dull by day.

Herzog & de Meuron, where were you when we needed you?

Stadiums designed by Herzog & de Meuron — all images via Wikipedia

Why have I mentioned Herzog & de Meuron? Because they’re the architects charged with designing the new National Library of Israel building — another confused project.

Future National Library of Israel building, Herzog & de Meuron

The NIL building is meant to be an icon, symbolizing a spiritual and cultural heritage that spans thousands of years.

Herzog and de Meuron felt that that heritage would best be represented by a sleek sculptural mass conveying a sort of timeless severity.

That’s where things get confused. Judaism is timeless, but hardly severe. The religion and its texts — the very texts that make up the library’s collection — are concerned with the minutiae of everyday life. The Jewish people, notwithstanding shared core beliefs and practices, are a mosaic of subcultures and languages. The tie to a specific geographic location is a unifying force — but one that demands attention and response to the character of that location, its visual and design traditions.

Boiling all that color and history and diversity down to an asymmetrical modernist slab that mocks its Middle Eastern setting strikes me as a rather confused representational strategy. For my money (and a lot of money is involved), Herzog and de Meuron would have been a better choice for the Israeli capital’s sports arena than for its national library.

III. Is confusion inevitable?

When it comes to building Jerusalem, we seem to be confused about a lot of things. We’re confused as to what architectural features and materials suit what purposes. We’re confused about which uses should be visually and spatially emphasized and which users prioritized, and where. We’re confused as to whether we actually have an architectural vernacular, and also about what to do with historical styles generally: should they be employed to create pseudo-historic Disneylands, for seniors or other publics? Or can they be used to legitimately express larger cultural meanings and values?

An American author, Charles Siegel, recently published a book that addresses these issues.

In his Humanists versus the Reactionary Avant Garde, Siegel gives a concise and engaging overview of last century’s transition from people-oriented, traditional architecture to technology-focused, modernist architecture. He relates how the dehumanized sterility of modernism ultimately gave way to two contrasting forms of postmodern architecture: a neotraditionalism that is often insincere (like the colonnade described above), and a discordant or flamboyant avant-gardism (exemplified by the crystalline beak that disrupts the aforementioned colonnade).

Having pointed out that modernist architecture was part of a larger cultural project aimed at “spreading blind faith in technology and progress,” he argues that we should once again make architecture “part of the larger cultural conversation,” only this time with different ideals in mind.

Writing within an American context, Siegel advocates re-embracing the classical architectural vocabulary in a sincere way, to symbolize values of simplicity, human scale, historic continuity and the subordination of modern technology and the modern economy to human needs.

These are values with which we in Israel can surely identify. Beyond that, Siegel addresses the fact that cultures outside the US and Western Europe would more naturally “use their own traditional styles to symbolize continuity.” He speculates that such cultures, to the extent that they also embrace western values, might ideally aim for “a synthesis of the culture’s traditional architecture with classical architecture.”

Perhaps one day, when we have decided what values we want to advance and have chosen an architectural vocabulary to express and reinforce them, our buildings will be less confused.